Page 1: Biography
Church, Hubert Newman Wigmore
Clerk, poet, novelist
This biography, written by Harvey McQueen, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996.
Hubert Newman Wigmore Church was born at Hobart, Tasmania, on 13 June 1857, the son of Mary Ann Newman and her husband, Hubert Day Church, a clerk who later became a barrister. In 1865 Hubert was taken to England where he was educated at schools in Guildford and Felstead. He may also have attended Oxford University. When he was 12 he was struck on the head by a cricket ball and became completely deaf. As a result he was thrown largely on his own resources and became an omnivorous reader. In 1873 Church came to New Zealand and studied law at Blenheim. He joined the Colonial Treasurer's Department in Wellington in 1879 and worked there as a clerk. He was married at Wellington on 12 December 1900 to Catherine Livingstone McGregor.
Church's first volume of verse, The west wind, was published in Sydney in 1902. It was followed by Poems, published in Wellington in 1904, and Egmont, published in Melbourne in 1908. Church also contributed poems and provided advice for Victoria College's magazine the Spike, which was launched in June 1902. Hubert retired in 1911 and he and Catherine went to Melbourne in 1912. The same year Church collected the best poetry from his earlier volumes and published it with nine additional pieces as Poems.
He went to England in 1913 and during the First World War was engaged in voluntary war work. In London in 1916 he published a novel, Tonks, which related the amusing adventures of an English nobleman on tour through the North Island. He returned to New Zealand in 1919 and in October 1923 moved to Melbourne where he became well known in literary circles. In addition to his published work Church wrote several short stories, numerous essays and two novels: Lucky Maidment, the life of a gambler, and Old Wairau, a rustic tale of early Marlborough.
Hubert Church's contemporaries spoke highly of his courtesy and knowledge, though to converse with him they had to write their thoughts down. His poems were well received in both New Zealand and Australia; several were anthologised and some were painted on the inside doors of the Wellington trams. The poet Jessie Mackay said that 'Bowen Falls, Milford Sound' was 'the clearest, loveliest song of a beauty all our Zealandian own'. She described Church as a 'meditative, detached, abstract' poet. Since then, however, his verse has steadily gone down in reputation. By 1959 he did not warrant a mention in E. H. McCormick's New Zealand literature: a survey.
Church's sense of personal isolation, religious doubt and melancholy contributed to a pervasive sense of gloom throughout his verse. Even in his own time this mood repelled some readers, who found the metaphysical musings and vocabulary of the 1912 Poems and Egmont difficult to follow and sometimes to understand. According to F. A. de la Mare many of these verses could 'only be approached with a lexicon in one hand and a philosophical dictionary in the other'. Although his shorter pieces were more popular, it is these pieces with their Tennysonian echoes that have attracted most modern criticism.
Hubert Church died at East Malvern, Melbourne, on 8 April 1932, survived by his wife. They had had no children, but as Jessie Mackay said after Church's death, 'His poems were his children, and hers, too, for she inspired them.' Indeed, in speaking of his wife Church had told Mackay, 'She, you know, is the West Wind.' In 1945 the Hubert Church Memorial Award for Prose was established with the help of a bequest to the New Zealand Centre of PEN from Catherine Church.